Conservative Christianity and religious politics in the UK link graph

[The abstract for a paper now accepted for the Resaw conference in Amsterdam in June of this year, The Web That Was]

Scholars of conservative Protestant Christianity have known for many years of various correlations between conservatism in doctrine and particular stances on a number of key political issues. Most visible in the USA, these correlations have involved issues of personal morality that are connected with the law, such as abortion or the rights of gay and lesbian people.

Less often scrutinised has been the engagement of conservative Protestants with issues of biblical interpretation that have political and cultural consequences: climate change, creationism and the interpretation of biblical prophecy in relation to current politics (including the state of Israel) and the end of the world (Sweetnam, 2019). Scholars of right-wing politics in general have also often noted a further correlation between some varieties of conservative Christianity and a generalised sympathy for the politics of the right. In the UK, scholars have examined in particular Christian attitudes to the European Union and to concerns about the place of Islam in public life (Smith and Woodhead, 2018; Atherstone, 2019)

However, although each of these correlations has been observed singly, rather less is known about the degree to which the same individuals or groups have engaged with several or all of these issues as a package. It is also the case that rather less attention has been paid to the distinctive configuration of these concerns in nations other than the USA.

This paper examines the online interrelations between evangelical churches in the UK and the constellation of other organisations online, religious and not, that concern themselves with issues of prophetic interpretation, the eschatological significance of Israel, climate change denial, euroscepticism, and the supposed threat of Islam to the nature of ‘Christian Britain’. It examines the extent to which individual churches engage with these various issues singly, as opposed to jointly. It also investigates the extent to which some issues are more prominent than others in British evangelicalism, by an analysis of the relative weight of links to some organisations in comparison to others.

It does so by means of two publicly available link graph datasets. The first is provided by the British Library and is derived from the holdings of the .uk ccTLD in the Internet Archive for the period 1996-2013; the second is the worldwide link graph derived from a Common Crawl corpus from 2012 by scholars at the University of Mannheim.

Since this latter dataset has (to the best of my knowledge) so far not been utilised at all by scholars of the humanities, I also reflect on the methodological challenges it presents, and the difficulties of commensuration between data derived under different conditions by different organisations.

The method used is a development of that used in previous studies, notably Webster (2017) and so far unpublished work on creationism in the UK.

A. Atherstone (2019), ‘Evangelicals and Islam’ in Atherstone and Jones (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (Abingdon: Routledge).
G. Smith and L. Woodhead (2018), ‘Religion and Brexit: populism and the Church of England’, Religion, State and Society, 46:3, 206-223.
M. Sweetnam (2019), ‘Evangelicals and the end of the world’ in Atherstone and Jones (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (Abingdon: Routledge).
P. Webster (2017), ‘Religious discourse in the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ in Brugger and Schroeder (eds), The Web as History (London:UCL Press).

Existing Web archives: an orientation

Web archives are fast becoming the fundamental source with which the history of the Web is written. Scholars coming to them for the first time are in need of some orientation, however, since those archives are brought into being by many different organisations for varying purposes and by different means. Their scope and structure also vary widely, as do the means of first locating and then using them.

My chapter in the new Sage Handbook of Web History aims to provide just that orientation.

It begins with a brief historical sketch of the development of Web archiving over the last 20 years, which I discussed at greater length here. It then moves on to outline the different means by which these archives are created, and what implications those differences have for how they must be interpreted. It outlines the varied kinds of collections in existence, and the different questions of method that this variety raises for scholars. Finally, it details the means by which scholars may first locate archived Web content, and (once located) how it may be used.

Along the way, it raises several points of necessary critical engagement for Web historians regarding the archived Web as a new class of primary source. Some of these issues have their analogues in print, manuscript or other sources; a scholar needs to understand who produced an object, whether it be a book, a manuscript, a painting or a PDF. But some of the issues presented here are peculiar to the archived Web, and must be thought through afresh.

The technologies that are used to create archived Web resources fundamentally shape those resources, and so understanding those technologies is a prerequisite to understanding the archive. Crucial also is an understanding of how the archive is structured: along national lines, by the institution or sector that created the content, by format or by a more general subject.

Finally, users must also understand something of the means by which they discover, search within, view and analyse archived objects, since those means are both relatively new and in a state of flux and development. That thinking will be greatly enabled by close collaboration between scholars and archivists: a partnership of mutual benefit which shows welcome early signs of growth.att

[See also, in the same volume, ‘Religion in Web history‘, my essaying of an agenda for the religious history of the Web.]

Religion in Web history

My chapter in the new Sage Handbook of Web History is now published. I summarise it here.

The literature on the phenomenon of religion in computer-mediated contexts is now very large, having built up over two decades. That literature is also produced both in, and in the spaces between, more than one discipline: Internet Studies, which concerns itself with the nature of the medium); the sociology of religion; and from scholars of religious studies concerned in particular with the relationship between religion and the media in general. The disciplinary labels vary between countries, but however it is named, little of this writing concerns itself directly with the kind of questions that most preoccupy historians.

This essay surveys the current state of Web history as it relates to religion, and falls into two halves.

Its first half attends to some debates of particular historical and methodological note with which the emerging history of religions on the Web may fruitfully be brought into conversation. These include debates concerning both the Web itself as a technological system, and religious responses to technological change in general.

It then sets out some points of contact between Web history and three key themes in contemporary religious history: secularisation; religious radicalism; and the place of religion in civic life and the law. It also argues for a fresh integration of the Web, and the archived Web in particular, with the study of offline religion, in pursuit of an ideal state in which the archived Web is merely one of many kinds of primary sources with which historians work.

The second half then takes a fourfold schema of different aspects of religions as they may be studied. The first of these is doctrine and religious knowledge: the symbols and forms of words that describe the divine, the world, the human person and their interrelations. Second are religious organisations and their representatives (clerical or lay). Third is religious practice: communal and solitary activities of prayer, worship and other rituals. Finally, the section on religions and the Other deals with the modes in which religious people and organisations encounter those outside: as potential proselytes, as discussion partners about wider social issues, and as antagonists. In each case, I identify the current state of research and set out elements of an agenda for future Web history research.

[See also, in the same volume, my introduction to existing Web archives.]

The contemporary religious history of the Web: themes, prospects and pitfalls

A paper I gave on 9 October to the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

Abstract: The emerging discipline of Web history is at a point of inflection. Over nearly ten years, a small but worldwide community of scholars has been grappling with the methodological questions raised by the Web, and the archived Web in particular, as scholarly sources. (Some of this exploration has been aired in this seminar in previous years.) At the same time, the continuously moving frontier that marks the further extent of the interest of contemporary historians has now reached the 1990s, the period during which the Web begins to take its place as a truly revolutionary medium of communication. This paper sets out to connect the preoccupations of contemporary religious history with the developing area of Web history, and to suggest an agenda for the near future of the contemporary religious history of the Web.

My slides are available at

Interpreting Christian history: a review

[My review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History: the challenge of the churches’ past, first published in Reviews in History in 2005. Still in print, I would still recommend the book for anyone interested in what history might mean for the churches.]

Euan Cameron, former Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Newcastle, now Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has written a fascinating and, in many ways, remarkable study. It contains much that may be of interest to professional religious historians, to historians of ideas, to students and teachers of theology, and to the general reader. In addition, its approach neatly demonstrates the dilemmas facing historians of Christianity who are themselves religiously committed, and the contrasting audiences for writing on Christian history.

Cameron’s central enterprise, as outlined in the Preface and developed in the Introduction, is one that is of pivotal importance to many historians of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, yet entirely beside the point to others. The usefulness of studying Christian history for many, if not most, Christians lies in the degree to which it aids the process of identifying which elements of the inheritance of one or other of the denominations constitute part of the ‘core’ of the faith, and which may safely be reformed, re-ordered, or discarded. This set of priorities may well be familiar to church historians working in some denominational theological colleges, and also conceivably (although less likely) in university departments of theology or divinity.

Cameron rightly identifies the damage done by an uncritical use of the past to settle issues in the contemporary church, and the problematic nature of the notion of a timeless, ‘pure’ core content that can be traced developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the millennia of the Church’s history. As the archbishop of Canterbury recently put it, ‘When people set out to prove that nothing has changed, you can normally be sure that something quite serious has’ (1). In many ways, this view of the history of doctrine as the progression and ‘emergence’ of key ideas, detached and floating free of context and free from the minds required to think them, sounds very much like the style of writing of the history of political ideas that Quentin Skinner so effectively destroyed over thirty-five years ago.

The second, and diametrically opposed, approach is that prevailing in most secular history departments. This sets aside entirely all consideration of the ‘truth’ or otherwise of religious statements and practices, and seeks to understand those statements and practices purely in terms of their functions in the society in which they are embedded and from which they grow. To pose questions of ‘truth’ attracts the taint of the most partisan historical writing of the past, most often, but not exclusively, concerning the Reformations.

Having delineated this seemingly irreconcilable opposition, Cameron seeks to identify a Third Way, for which this volume is both a manifesto and a series of exploratory essays. Nailing his own colours firmly to the mast, he correctly identifies the fact that for most Christians the adoption of a thorough-going relativism — the abandonment of any core in historic Christianity — would surely be difficult to accept. Thus to capitulate would truly be to build one’s house on sand. For Cameron, there does exist an ‘essential Christianity’, reflecting the immutable nature of God. However, all visible Christianities are always and everywhere a composite of this eternal core, and the inevitable situation of the Church and its members in particular places, cultures, and languages. Cameron then looks to assert that, whilst it would be impossible ever to sort out definitively the core from the time-bound and conditioned, it is nevertheless possible for historians, by a process of ‘triangulation’ of different periods and churches, to infer useful things from the churches’ past.

After a brief overview of Christian history in chapter 1, designed mainly for the non-specialist reader, in chapter 2 (‘Constantly shifting emphases in Christian history’), Cameron looks to draw out some examples of periods in the churches’ history in which a particular and repeating pattern of development can be detected. For Cameron, Christians have often collectively seized upon a particular practice or doctrine as particularly expressive of a need or useful as a tool. These particular elements of the faith, often blameless and indeed admirable as means of Christian perfection, have often become ends in themselves. Such practices have often then been elaborated upon and developed in such a way as to conflict with, and distract from, other, arguably more important, principles, thus leading to an unbalanced and distorted whole. These shifts of the centre towards one extreme or another are often accompanied by a lesser, but nonetheless clear, counter-movement, such as the emergence of Lollardy in the context of late-medieval sacramentalism. Sometimes, but not always, these imbalances have led to the outgrowing structures collapsing under their own weight, and a re-balancing of the church occurring — a prime example being that of the Reformations.

Without claiming that the ‘core’ elements thus obscured and then recovered are necessarily easy to discern, Cameron convincingly lays out examples of such a pattern in the medieval church, taking in examinations of asceticism and martyrdom in the medieval period, and Protestant emphases on catechesis and the integrity of the visible church community since the Reformation. Cameron is not concerned to establish any grand narrative of why this pattern should be, although he provides much material for the theological pursuit of such a question as he proceeds. His aim, and one which is achieved, is to demonstrate the pertinence of such a pattern, and the use of a wide enough historical lens to discern it, for the enterprise of writing Christian history.

Chapter 3 examines the status and development of church history as a distinct and self-conscious activity from Eusebius to the late-twentieth century. Whilst making no claims of exhaustiveness, this section is an admirably concise and, on the whole, convincing narrative of changing priorities, and fills a gap in the literature. In order to show that his approach is not purely a late-twentieth century exercise in relativism, Cameron demonstrates that historians of the churches have for five centuries been dealing with just such an awareness of the flawed and time-bound nature of the historic church. The writing of church history is to a great degree predicated upon the ecclesiological point from which one begins.

Particularly interesting is Cameron’s account of the development of the relationship of sixteenth century theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, with the Catholic past. The crucial shift in Reformation church history was the jettisoning of any emphasis on the integrity of the hierarchy as a mark of the True Church, and the relocation of that essence in the presence of a saving remnant, however small. Christian thinkers were for the first time faced with the task of identifying how and why the institutional church could have become so corrupt as to cease to be a True Church. This necessitated a new relationship with the historic church. Cameron also draws out the incongruous co-existence of this increasingly critical approach to sources with the continued attribution of influence to divine or Satanic agency, and the reading of church history through the prism of the Apocalypse. As his narrative proceeds into the modern period, Cameron rightly identifies the crucial nineteenth-century withdrawal of professional historians from explicit theological reflection on the implications of their work; a task that was picked up almost at the same point by theologians, and latterly by sociologists of religion.

In chapter 4, the work reaches its theological core, and as such is the point at which many, if not most, historians of religion may choose to stop reading. To do so, however, would be a shame. Cameron samples some of the attempts of historically-informed theologians to solve the central epistemological problem outlined in the Introduction: is it possible to develop an historico-theological method with which to begin to discern the core elements of Christian doctrine and practice from the history of the flawed, human, error-prone institutions that are the churches? Whether or not the reader accepts the validity of, or sees any point to, such an undertaking, there is much suggestive material for historians of ideas along the way. Fascinating conjunctures are presented between Hegelian thought and the currents within German liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century. The reaction of Karl Barth, in the context of the turmoil of world war, against the profound optimism concerning human nature of many of his predecessors also suggests many fruitful avenues of new research.

For this reviewer, with interests in British history, the absence of British, and in particular Anglican, theologians from this endeavour is striking, and indicates much about the Church of England’s own and perhaps rather particular view of its own past. What is perhaps of the greatest general interest in this section is the picture it gives of a sister discipline to history grappling with many of the same issues relating to language and epistemology, globalization and social change that have exploded to the surface in recent years.

In summary, Cameron has produced a work that, whilst unlikely to surprise period specialists in matters of detail, may profitably be read as an examination of a crucially important part of church history, and as a peculiarly fascinating meditation on Christian history, theology and the relationship between them.

[See also Cameron’s response to the review.]